When you get close to a great athlete, you usually feel like a troll. They are so healthy their skin glistens, they take afternoon naps and, whether male or female, they could beat you up if it came to it. Kim Clijsters is different. Passing the Belgian in a corridor recently, I initially took her for a chubby peasant girl from a Brueghel painting. The only thing that marked her out as a professional athlete was that she was writing a text message, which is generally their hobby.
Yet Clijsters, 22, is currently the world’s most in-form female tennis player. This fortnight she should win the US Open, her first Grand Slam. If she doesn’t do it this time, she may never.
Despite appearances, Clijsters was born to sporting greatness. Her mother Els was a Belgian gymnastics champion; her father Lei a Belgian international footballer. That may sound like damning him with faint praise, but his side reached the World Cup semi-final in 1986. In a communist regime, two specimens like Lei and Els Clijsters would have been ordered to breed. In Belgium it just happened.
In 1988, when Lei Clijsters was voted Belgian footballer of the year, he celebrated by building a tennis court in the garden. It proved a poor investment: his two daughters played perhaps 20 matches on it. Kim was already busy making an impact at local clubs and in tournaments. Even as a kid, she was touring the world with another Belgian child a year older than her named Justine Henin. Each always strove to outdo the other. The rivalry helped make both players.
Clijsters’s other role model was her father. In part, her career is a rerun of his. Lei returned from serious injury; so can she. He never watched his own matches on TV; she doesn’t watch hers. Despite having a Rubensesque build, Clijsters also inherited her mother’s agility. It goes into her most characteristic on-court move: doing the splits to reach a ball.
Today Lei Clijsters, bearded and snarling, a silent presence at his daughter’s matches, looks like the archetypal crazy tennis dad. However, he insists he never pushed Kim. Rather, what seems to have happened is that the family took sporting achievement for granted. Of course Kim practised non-stop. Of course she hated losing. Of course she became great. Of course her sister, Elke, briefly played on tour before retiring with injury last year. Sport was the family trade, just as other families run restaurants, and thus nothing to make a fuss about.
When Kim acquired a boyfriend, Lleyton Hewitt, who happened to be the world’s number one male player, the Clijsters remained blasé. Lei reported: “Whenever Lleyton stays at our house, he helps clear the table and says ‘thank-you’ 100 times a day. Only on court is he a different person.” Indeed: Hewitt has a hunger that Clijsters lacks. Asked before one Wimbledon whether she would prefer him to win it or her, she replied: “Lleyton. I don’t like seeing him unhappy.”
Probably not by chance, Clijsters has lost all her four Grand Slam finals. Another Belgian player, Kirsten Flipkens, hints that she might suffer from fear of success.
Yet by 2003, Clijsters had risen to be world number one. She would kid around with opponents or their dogs or godchildren before a match, destroy said opponent on court with beefy forehands, and then kid around again. She played tag with Anna Kournikova. Flipkens recalls wrestling with Clijsters at the US Open: “She won, of course.”
Clijsters has been voted most popular woman on tour. She sends text messages and goes for dinner with troubled colleagues: Daniela Hantuchova, who became dangerously thin, and Anastasia Myskina, whose mother has cancer. Clijsters’s own mother is recovering from the disease, but Kim stayed outwardly cheery throughout the horror. Carl Maes even resigned as her coach because he felt she didn’t need him: “Kim is so uncomplicated that nothing ever goes wrong with her.”
Her simplicity enchants Belgians. She and Henin have made this the only European country where big tennis matches draw more viewers than the national football team, though admittedly the side is now pathetic. Kids are flooding into tennis clubs. Recently “Kimmie”, as Belgians call her, was even immortalised in Belgium’s most characteristic artistic genre: the comic book.
De Fat Cup tells the story of Clijsters being taken by helpful Belgian farmers to the wrong tennis tournament: not to the Fed Cup, but the Fat Cup, a tournament for fat women. Of course Clijsters lets her opponent win. Hec Leemans, who wrote the story, insisted to me that Fat Cup didn’t refer to Clijsters’s build. He claims she is slender. But Leemans says the cartoon’s publication proves that in Belgium “she is approaching the status of Eddy Merckx”, the legendary cyclist.
Even French-speaking Belgians adore Clijsters. King Albert – whom Clijsters once kissed instead of curtsying to – has used tennis to argue that this country riven by language should stick together. “The general enthusiasm over the successes of Justine and Kim is witness to our unity,” he said, to which one columnist retorted: “But what is left when these multicultural heroines get tennis elbow?”
It was a good question, because Clijsters and Henin both missed most of 2004 with injuries. Clijsters, who had hurt her wrist, even thought of retiring to open a campsite. Her sponsor, Belgacom, dropped her and she split up with Hewitt. Instead of marrying Kim this year, as per plan, he married an Australian actress. Their baby is due in October. Clijsters is now seeing an American basketball player.
In February she returned to tennis better than ever. All summer she has ruled the hard courts of North America, a continent where she has won 35 of her last 36 matches. “Clijsters deserves to win a Grand Slam,” says John McEnroe.
If not now, when? She said this week she would probably retire in 2007, aged 24. “My body is already causing me many worries,” she explained. By the time of the 2008 Olympics it would be “worn out”. Maes adds: “Kim has no goals in tennis. She has no ambitions, though she gives herself 200 per cent.” Even so, winning the US Open would be nice, and might give her that crucial nudge in October’s all-important election of Greatest Belgian.